Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Hunter Valley: gourmet heaven

The Hunter Valley, a two-hour-drive north of Sydney, is one of Australia's most historic – and interesting – wine regions, with roots that date back almost 190 years.

The first major grape plantings date back to 1825 when James Busby, widely considered the father of Australian wine, purchased land between the settlements of Branxton and Singleton and named it Kirkton after his Scottish birthplace.
Hunter Valley vineyards

Busby travelled extensively throughout Europe and South Africa, collecting cuttings from over 500 vineyards, including six of syrah (shiraz) from the Hermitage hill in the Rhone Valley.

Today, the most widely planted grape varieties in the Hunter are semillon, chardonnay and verdelho among the whites and shiraz among the reds with tiny plantings of cabernet sauvignon and “alternative varieties”.

Semillon is the iconic wine of the region, crisp and ultra-refreshing in its youth but a style that matures over decades into a honeyed wine with toasty/brioche notes.

Young semillon is ideally suited to summer drinking and is a magnificent match for seafood; crisp, clean, low in alcohol, unwooded and deliciously dry. No wonder the style has been dubbed “semsational” by marketing types.

Jancis Robinson, one of the world's greatest wine writers, has described Hunter semillon as “Australia’s great gift to the wine world” and the style has not been replicated anywhere else on the planet.

Hunter shiraz, meanwhile, is today almost always medium-bodied and clean as a whistle – although that has not always been the case.

Shiraz was the red wine grape of the historic Hunter Valley where the wines were so strapping, and often so lacking in focus, that they inspired that memorable tasting term 'sweaty saddle',” Jancis Robinson once wrote. “And there are still bottles hidden in ancient cellars attesting to the staying power of the wines that were then called Hunter 'Hermitage'.
Wine tasting at Hungerford Hill 

It is true that Hunter shiraz (known as Hermitage or Burgundy until the 1970s) once suffered from a reputation for “funkiness” that a new generation of winemakers has addressed and rectified.

Leading shiraz maker Andrew Thomas believes that a move away from big, alcoholic wines – as promoted by influential American wine critic Robert Parker – gives Hunter producers a chance to stake their claim as trend setters.

Fortunately most consumers have now realised that those Aussie fruit bomb wines are not all they’re cracked up to be, are now looking for wines with more style and structure, and actively seeking out more medium-bodied wines,” Thomas says.

The Hunter Valley has certainly been a beneficiary of this change in consumer preference. Personally, I feel it’s a very exciting period to be a Hunter shiraz producer, and the wines we are producing (as a region) have never been better.

There is a renewed focus within the region to bottle wines from distinguished individual vineyard sites using an attention to detail, yet minimum interventionist approach. Our wines still display that uniquely regional medium-bodied, savoury structure, but with an amazing fruit-driven vibrancy and varietal purity.

It’s true we do occasionally experience some challenging seasons with our weather, but when we get it right (which is certainly more often than not) our shiraz is absolutely world class.”

The great opportunity for Hunter shiraz is that the consumer market is moving away from the big blockbuster reds and looking for wines with more finesse,” says Andrew Margan of Margan Family Wines.
Winemaker Andrew Margan 

To drink wines with less tannins and more acidity, like in pinot noir, is a market trend and the Hunter Valley personifies this style of wine.

We need to get Hunter wine back into people’s minds, and mouths, and make them realise medium-bodied wine is not a bad thing.” 

WHERE TO EAT

Bistro Molines in Mount View, a quiet corner of the Hunter Valley, is set high in the hills with dramatic vistas of vineyard rolling hills and neighbouring farms. Chef Robbie Molines, a Hunter veteran, serves hearty French-accented food (think maybe a venison pie, or twice-roasted local duckling) and features a temptingly global wine list. www.bistromolines.com.au.

Muse Restaurant at Hungerford Hill is a top-notch winery restaurant where chef Troy Rhoades-Brown offers a stylish dining experience with innovative modern Australian dishes. There are also several wine and food matching options. Also sample the more casual Muse Kitchen at the Keith Tulloch cellar door. www.musedining.com.au.

Margan Tasting Room and Restaurant offers the chance to dine inside or out, while enjoying a menu that features dishes where modern Australian cuisine meets the Mediterranean. Here you can enjoy a long lunch with vineyard views and many of the vegetables and herbs you'll eat are grown on site. www.margan.com.au.

Restaurant Botanica is part of Spicers Vineyard Estate, a laid-back resort with just 12 rooms. Botanica is a favourite with in-the-know Hunter locals. It highlights mod Oz cuisine paired with a wine list that highlights local boutique offerings and some enticing imports. www.spicersgroup.com.au.
Restaurant Botanica is a local favouite

The Beltree is a well-kept Hunter secret, serving delicious Italian food in a rustic ambience. Think dishes like gnocchi in a duck and porcini ragu, or maybe a decadently rich suckling pig. www.beltree.com.au.

Esca Bimbadgen is a long-time Hunter favourite combining good food, friendly service and terrific views. www.bimbadgen.com.au, while Roberts Circa 1876 is another reliably good option.

Another good choice is Chez Pok at Peppers Guest House, which has been re-born with executive chef John Edwards using fresh local ingredients with a French accent and wines from traditional and new generation local winemakers.

Villa du Pays restaurant at Leogate Estate serves sophisticated food in elegant surroundings and owners Bill and Vicki Widin supply the export quality Black Angus beef direct from their herd in northern New South Wales and have their own dry-aging room on site, while chef Emerson Rodriguez, who has worked at several Hunter restaurants, has also opened his new Emerson’s eatery at Adina winery.

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